#490) Let There Be Light (1946)

#490) Let There Be Light (1946)

Directed & Written by John Huston

Class of 2010

Shortly after completing his first film (“The Maltese Falcon”), director John Huston was enlisted into the army to make documentaries for their film unit. His WWII trilogy consists of the Oscar nominated “Report from the Aleutians”, fellow NFR inductee “The Battle of San Pietro“, and 1946’s “Let There Be Light”.

Narrated by John’s father Walter Huston, “Light” is a raw look at Edgewood State Hospital in Long Island, New York. At the time, Edgewood was run by the US Army, and treated soldiers returning from the war. The soldiers admitted to Edgewood were all suffering from some form of war-related Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, manifesting itself as stammering or amnesia or various other impairments (according to this film’s prologue, one out of every five soldiers has a war-induced mental illness). “Light” utilizes real patients and real treatments to illustrate the recovery process; everything from group therapy to hypnosis is used to help these men cope with their “nervous conditions”. Huston’s overall mission with “Light” is to show the American public that these mens’ mental illness is no different from the more visible physical injuries endured by other men during the war, and that they are still capable of holding jobs and being productive members of society.

Despite this important message, the US Army had the film banned for almost 35 years (see “Legacy” below). Thankfully, the film is now readily available for viewing, and is definitely worth a watch. Huston was among the first to highlight the mental anguish of war and the difficulties of returning to civilian life, and the first to do so in a documentary format rather than a fictional narrative. Like so many of the great NFR entries, “Let There Be Light” stands on its own unique piece of ground, with its innovative presentation and controversial status cementing its legacy as an important American film.

Why It Matters: The NFR gives a rundown of the film’s production history, adding only that it is one of John Huston’s “classic war documentaries”. There’s also an informative essay by archivist Bryce Lowe, who helped with the film’s 2012 restoration.

Other notes 

  • “Light” was produced by the Army’s Professional Medical Film unit, established in 1945 to document soldiers returning home. Noticing that many discharged soldiers weren’t being hired for jobs, the PMF approached John Huston about making a film highlighting these soldiers’ mental conditions. Huston was interested in making the film after suffering from anxiety and recurring nightmares following his combat experience while filming “San Pietro”.
  • The first noticeable element of the film is the hospital’s integration. Both Black and White soldiers are treated side by side with no documentation of racial discrimination. Desegregated hospitals would not become common until 1948.
  • Cinéma vérité was still a decade away from breaking into American films, which aids in the unique presentation of “Light”. These men are obviously not actors, but the film still has the slick camera moves associated with the Hollywood studio system, making a modern viewing appear stilted and staged.
  • “A display of emotions is sometimes very helpful”. Oh boy, it’s going to take a long time to break down this kind of toxic masculinity.
  • Perhaps the most obvious example of our limited vocabulary regarding mental illness in the 1940s: the phrase “mixed-up” is used by the doctors.
  • I was most intrigued by the hospital’s various uses of hypnosis as treatment. One soldier is given sodium amytal to address the mental block preventing him from walking, while another is hypnotized to overcome his amnesia brought on by his experience in Okinawa. Both procedures are run by the same doctor (Col. Benjamin Simon), and he’s so effective I think I got hypnotized at one point.
  • The film’s third usage of hypnosis is the most memorable, when Col. Simon uses the treatment to cure a man of his stammering. The soldier’s elation at finally being able to speak is amplified by Dimitri Tiomkin’s score. Despite all these success stories, the film’s opening prologue points out that these extreme treatments work best in “acute cases” and aren’t recommended for “dealing with peacetime neuroses”.
  • Also dated: the idea that young men can very easily start their own business. Ha!
  • “Light” ends with several before and after shots of the soldiers we have been following. We see them in their initial interviews discussing their traumas and suicidal thoughts, followed by them eight weeks later playing baseball and well on their way to recovery. Huston later stated that the men documented in the film recovered at a higher rate than the men not documented, making “Light” an example of the Hawthorne effect.

Legacy 

  • Following completion of the film – and a less than enthusiastic screening at the Pentagon – the Army banned “Let There Be Light”, fearing it would harm their recruitment numbers. Huston was told that the film was shelved because it was an invasion of the soldiers’ privacy. When Huston countered that each of the soldiers signed a release form, he was told these forms had “disappeared”. Huston always theorized that the film was banned to protect the Army’s “warrior myth”: soldiers are strengthened by their war experience, not weakened. Although Huston did receive a print of the final film, his attempts to publicly screen “Light” were always shut down by the Army.
  • “Let There Be Light” successfully received an unauthorized screening at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in November 1980. Among those in attendance was MPAA president Jack Valenti, who used his Washington connections to get the film’s ban lifted. “Light” had its official premiere at New York’s Thalia Theatre in January 1981, and went on to play at that year’s Cannes Film Festival.

Further Viewing: 1948’s “Shades of Gray”, the film the War Department commissioned to replace “Let There Be Light”. “Gray” opts for dramatic recreations of real cases over actual documentation, and suggests that these soldiers’ mental traumas were pre-existing conditions before the war. Thanks for setting the movement back at least 35 years, US Army!

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